Honoring in Others the Fundamental Good of Self-Determination

6 ways to practice a key concept of coaching and mediation that will upgrade your personal and business communication

A central theme to coaching and mediation is self-determination. That’s a little-considered word for a pretty heady concept, and one that deserves greater airtime and more immediate recognition. (Some mistakenly see “determination” and think it’s about mustering up motivation and will power.)

Self-determination is the action, quality, process of self-directing or deciding your life — choosing your path based on your own interests, needs, preferences, personal characteristics, and goals.

When we understand self-determination as a fundamental good and grant this to others in our dealings with them, we are less likely to find that our meddling, advice, and proposed solutions are just the kind of help they need.

What kind of help do they need, if at the moment they even need it?

In general, the other humans we encounter need the time, space, and conditions to access their own awareness and make their own determinations — to hear the little voice within; to see it in their mind’s eye; to feel it in their heart, their gut, or their bones; to sense the right direction. That could mean a long pause before deciding, a walk around the block, a shoulder to cry on, a list of pros and cons, to talk things over without judgment, a vision quest. You get the idea. Quick or prolonged, straightforward or complicated, it’s joining someone where they’re at (if they want you there) and supporting them in the direction they want to head.

What they mostly don’t need is us thinking we know better than they do about their own damn self and getting in the way with all our knowing-better. It helps me to remember that others are the reigning sovereign, the supreme authority of and over their own life. With this fundamental belief in the primacy of self-determination, coaches and mediators both promote and encourage self-determination through their work, and they expect their clients, or the parties in a mediation, to accept that personal responsibility.

Here are a few of the communications tools both types of practitioners use in their work — tools that anyone can begin adopting and refining in their own relationships. They all support and respect others’ self-determination and their use will improve your personal and business communications.


1. Active and empathic listening To properly assist a coaching or mediation client requires deep listening — staying with a person and understanding where they’re coming from.

  • Personal example: Try simply listening to those closest to you, especially when they are most animated. When you listen carefully to a sad, enthusiastic, confused, or venting child, spouse, best friend with the intention of understanding on various levels what they’re trying to communicate, they will notice and appreciate the attention.

  • Business example: You and a particular employee have been butting heads lately, and you’re at the point of pulling rank to shut down the conflict. Before drawing that hard line, have a conversation where your only goal is to listen and understand. Let them talk as much as they need to, jumping in only to ask clarifying or reflective questions, demonstrate that you’re hearing them, and encouraging them onwards.

2. Trusting the process Trusting and implementing the process (the coaching or mediation model, interpreted specifically and/or broadly) is crucial for a coach or mediator guiding a client. It is the framework that allows the work to take place and they are the guardian of it. For general use, consider the process to involve listening, engaging your curiosity, asking open questions, believing the other’s answers, and working towards mutual understanding and win-win solutions.

  • Personal example: Take an ongoing dispute with a neighbor. Know with clarity what matters to you and make it your first order of business to discover what matters to them.

  • Business example: It’s the same with angry customers in a business setting. You can know what’s important to you but resist any temptation to counter anything the other says with clichéd and meaningless responses. Focus on what your customers is saying and engage with that, taking the process one step at a time to a better place.

Don’t panic. With just a little practice, you can hear others out without knowing in advance what you are going to do or should do about the affair at hand. Put your attention on good process and trust that it will lead to better outcomes.

3. Believing in the client or parties Besides trusting the process, a coach or mediator needs to accept the client or the disputants where they’re at and have confidence in their capabilities and their right to self-determination. They serve as the believer, perhaps opening the doors for those they’re helping, but letting folks walk through, connect the dots, and have their flashes of insight on their own. Fixing, diagnosing, and providing solutions are not their domain; that is (perhaps) what therapists and consultants are for! Note: To do this, they must detach from the outcome; it’s not their domain.

  • Personal example: Your daughter says she needs a gap year before college. Instead of fighting it, assuming that what this really means is she’ll never go back and get a proper education, enter this conversation by believing that it is just one year she’s talking about.

  • Business example: You work at a small business and the owner comes to you saying she’s worried about the numbers the last couple quarters. Before jumping to the conclusion that she’s blaming you or that you should find another job because this place is tanking, limit yourself to believing the only thing you know: she’s worried about the numbers. Respond to that and let the conversation build productively from there.

When you remember to believe in others and what they tell you first, it opens up different avenues of conversations. You don’t have to work at figuring out what’s best for others. You can believe what they tell you and go from there. (Yes, some people are liars and deliberately deceptive or evasive. We’re not talking about them.)

4. Reflecting back Both coaches and mediators are skilled paraphrasers — they reflect back to participant/s what they’ve heard so that the person knows and feels that they’ve been heard. It’s important for people to feel validated, and it’s important to know that everyone is working with the same facts and stories.

  • Personal example: Your son wants to quit band just as he’s getting the hang of his trumpet, but when you ask him about it, his answers are vague or don’t make sense. By reflecting back what you’re noticing, you may nudge him to better understand his own motivations and arrive at a more nuanced place and a solution that addresses the heart of his concern. Maybe band class conflicts with something equally interesting. Perhaps he’s worried that he won’t improve further. There could be a personality conflict with the teacher or a grating trombone player who sits next to him.

  • Business example: A longtime vendor has been giving you breezy excuses about a new trend in late shipments, creeping costs, and high turnover on their end, seemingly unaware how bothered you are. You may need to reflect back, show them in a detached way how you’re experiencing these developments, to spark a useful conversation. Perhaps they’re expanding and undergoing some growing pains but didn’t realize it had an effect on their customers. Maybe a key employee has been out on maternity leave and her temporary replacement is making choices they haven’t paid much attention to. Find out where they’re coming from by suspending judgment, but not your reflection: Hey, I’ve noticed that…

It can be hard to know what we think, especially when it comes to our most triggering situations, delicate matters, biases, and blind spots, and this is where coaches and mediators help show people themselves by reflecting back in gentle, generous, and straight-shooting ways what they’re hearing, seeing, sensing. Sometimes we don’t really know what we think or want until we experience our thoughts through someone else’s reflection. A key insight of interpersonal neurobiology can help understand why this is. It suggests that one fundamental aspect of mind is that it’s a relational process — it emerges between two people in the flow of their energy and information exchange.

5. Powerful and open questions Asking them powerful and open-ended questions helps participants in coaching or mediation dig deeper inside, access what’s true for them, and share the kind of information that moves the process forward. The questions are direct — nothing tricky or manipulative, probing but respectful, and in service to the session’s agenda.

  • Personal example: Rather than telling a senior parent that they have to move because their home is no longer practical for them, honor their self-determination and rely on exploratory questions: What’s stopping you from moving to a smaller, one-level home without stairs? How do you see yourself remaining here alone…what if you fall? At what point would you consider moving? What living arrangement would you like more than what you have?

  • Business example: Rather than tell your co-worker what you think is her best path to the promotion she’s yearning for, acknowledge that she knows better and support her quest with an open line of inquiry: How will that work to get you from A to B? If that doesn’t get you what you want, what will you try next? What do you think will have the biggest impact on your boss’s decision? When will you be the right time to ask for the promotion?

See how easy it can be once you realize it’s not your job to determine other people’s paths? Instead, cultivate the habit of asking the sort of questions that helps draw out others’ best thinking.

6. Creative, customized, client-generated solutions When the helper doesn’t have or won’t provide the answers, solutions must be generated by the client. With the solid and elegant structures of coaching and mediation, and the focused guidance of the coach or mediator, participants can slow down, process emotions, hear themselves think, brainstorm, negotiate, sort through options, move through or around stuck situations, consider their preferences, and come up with brilliant solutions that happen to be just right for them and their situation.

  • Personal example: Your friend has been venting to you regularly about the dysfunctions of a volunteer organization he’s committed to and heavily involved with. Instead of shutting him up or telling him to quit, be prepared next time to help him generate solutions for making things better. Don’t dish out the answers (unless he asks for brainstorming help), be the guide. Keep returning the conversation to what new behaviors, attitudes, conversation tactics he will employ to improve the dynamics.

  • Business example: You’re a new HR manager and staff members have been complaining about the limitations of the new scheduling software. You don’t know what to do! But you don’t have to. Call a meeting and assist those in attendance to generate better solutions.

When you value the fundamental good of self-determination for others, you don’t need to have all the answers. You only need to recognize when you’re in a relationship or arrangement that calls for others’ creative, customized, self-generated solutions. Your communication moves can then turn to encouraging options that work best for them.


A quick re-cap:

  • Honoring the self-determination of others, a key concept of coaching and mediation, can upgrade your personal and business communications.

  • Self-determination is the action, quality, process of self-directing or deciding your life — choosing your path based on your own interests, needs, preferences, personal characteristics, and goals.

  • When we recognize in our dealings with others that they are the supreme authority, the reigning sovereign of their own lives, we are less likely to find that our meddling, advice, and proposed solutions are just the kind of help they need.

  • Using six communication tools from the fields of coaching and mediation that support and respect others’ self-determination will improve your personal and business communications: active and empathic listening; trusting the process; believing others and believing in them; reflecting back; open-ended, exploratory questions; and encouraging creative, customized, and self-centered solutions.